Falsely Feminist Fantomina

Fantomina; or Love in a Maze is the story of Fantomina, a young lady of distinguished birth, who seems to outsmart her lover Beauplaisir with numerous disguises in an effort to continue their relationship. At first glance this text seems to be telling the story of a strong female character who is taking control of her sexuality, but the female character is actually bound to act in accordance with the social expectations of the early 1700s.  Many people believe that because Fantomina was written by a female author that revolutionary ideas of equality and critique of the patriarchy are present in the text. However, it is not a feminist text because the actions of Eliza Haywood’s character Fantomina uphold the gender politics of the time it was written.

The first indicator that Fantomina is not acting out her own free idea of sexuality and independence and is instead being influenced by the pressures of her society begins in the theatre when she sees the men paying attention to the prostitute. Never having encountered something like this, she watches with intrigue, and happens to take note of how many men were around one specific woman, “she perceived several gentlemen extremely pleased themselves with entertaining a woman who sat in a corner of the pit and, by her air and manner of receiving them, might easily be known to be one of those who come there for no other purpose, than to create acquaintance with as many as seemed desirous of it” (page 2740). It is important to note that the first thing Fantomina notices about this situation is where the attention of the men is focused. She sees that these men are pleased with themselves and having a good time because of this woman. She is then intrigued about the manner and air of the woman. What makes her so captivating to the men? Fantomina is motivated to create her first disguise as Fantomina because she also wants to have male attention and approval, which is normal for traditional gender politics of the time.

This claim is also supported because at this point in the novel Fantomina has had no prior sexual encounters, so there would be no possibility for her to be motivated by her own sexual liberty. She is purely curious as to what it would be like to be the object of the men’s attention, and disguises herself to fit into a character that men like, “…therefore thought it not in the least a fault to put in practice a little whim which came immediately into her head, to dress herself as near as she could in the fashion of those women who make sale of their favors, and set herself in the way of being accosted as such as one, having at that time no other aim than the gratification of an innocent curiosity” (page 2740). Not only does she dress like the woman in the theatre, she even acts like the woman in the theatre so she is approached as such. The word innocent brings the most importance to this quote because it is continuing the idea of chastity and nonsexual feelings which would negate the idea that she uses these disguises for her own satisfaction and desires.

Fantomina also actively avoided sexual advances from Beauplaisir while she was in her first disguise. She was entertained by his conversation, not his physicality. “They passed their time all the play with an equal satisfaction; but when it was over, she found herself in a difficulty which before never entered into her head, but which she knew not well how to get over” (page 2741). Fantomina describes the situation as a difficulty she must get over, which is important because it shows the struggle she feels by not wanting to disappoint Beauplaisir because she started this to be able to gain approval and be the person men desired. Fantomina again feels the struggle of not wanting to disappoint Beauplaisir later, “Three or four times did she open her mouth to confess her real quality, but the influence of ill stars prevented it,” (page 2741). Even when Fantomina wanted to tell Beauplaisir who she really was, she doesn’t because of her ‘ill stars’ which essentially means because of her bad luck or ill determined fate. This puts the emphasis on the idea that Fantomina has no control over the situation, because in societal terms she also has no control over this situation.

Fantomina’s goal never was to engage in sexual activity with Beauplaisir. She just observed how to engage and obtain approval and attention from him and acted in that way because as a lady from the country she would have no other way of knowing that there was a potential issue with her plan, stated on page 2740, “She was young, a stranger to the world, and consequently to the dangers of it;”.  She displays this innocence again at their second meeting by serving him dinner, “…a servant belonging to the house to provide a very handsome supper and wine, and everything was served to the table in a manner which showed the director neither wanted money, nor was ignorant how it should be laid out” (page 2742). She wants Beauplaisir to come to the conclusion that she is not a prostitute on his own, so that she continues acting in an agreeable manner and not to upset him.

If Fantomina; or Love in a Maze was really a feminist text where Fantomina felt free to express her sexuality and all of her fantasies, why did she only stay with Beauplaisir as a new character so he believed her to be a new person? After their first sexual encounter Fantomina speaks to Beauplaisir and says, “No, my dear Beauplaisir, (added she) your love alone can compensate for the shame you have involved me in; be you sincere and constant, and I hereafter shall, perhaps, be satisfied with my fate, and forgive myself the folly that betrayed me to you” (page 2743). Fantomina feels compelled to stay with Beauplaisir because she recognizes the wrong that has occurred between them, and the only way to make the situation even remotely better is by being faithful to one man. This shows that she is still adhering to the gender politics of her society because she recognizes that losing her honor is not a situation she should be proud of and tries to make it better by asking for Beauplaisir’s love and fidelity. On page 2745 Fantomina says, “If he is really (said she, to herself) the faithful, the constant lover he has sworn to be, how charming will be our amour?” She is thinking about their pairing in terms of a relationship, and is in favor of continuing the relationship based on the love they have versus the sexual encounter they shared.

When Fantomina feels that the relationship between her and Beauplaisir is in jeopardy, thus her entire honor and satisfaction with her circumstance is in jeopardy, she changes her identity to keep Beauplaisir engaged in their relationship. Even if he doesn’t know it is her, the principle of faithfulness is still present and their sin isn’t as bad as it could be. In their second encounter Fantomina is now Celia, and she is described by “…her half-yielding, half-reluctant body…” (page 2747). This detail is important to the situation because while Celia has had Beauplaisir before and knows this is what she needs to do to keep her honor somewhat intact, she also knows that she is still committing a sin by societal standards and that is why she is reluctant to his advances. Similarly, when she is the Widow Bloomer she is still forced to keep up appearances as to stay in line with the gender politics as seen on page 2749 to be able to attract his attention and thus continue their relationship, “she counterfeited a fainting, and fell motionless upon his breast.” If she had been too forward, she would have been going against the gender politics.

Later she realizes that Beauplaisir has been cheating on her when she receives the two letters addressed to Fantomina and Widow Bloomer, “Traitor! (cried she) as soon as she had read them, ‘tis thus our silly, fond, believing sex are served when they put faith in a man” (page 2751). She is upset by the betrayal since he promised he would stay faithful to her, but because she created characters which weren’t of status to have it necessary for him to be faithful to, he wasn’t. As a prostitute, a maid, a widow, and a mysterious woman, he would have little obligation to these women to stay faithful. She is setting him up to be unfaithful, which ultimately gives him the power because he is a male of a higher class than those of her characters and because he has no idea who the true identity of Fantomina is, he is under no obligations to her.

Fantomina also goes to great lengths to keep up appearances with the outside world, but if she felt she was equal to man and free to sexually express herself, she wouldn’t feel the need to cover up her actions as well as she did, “She had discernment to foresee and avoid all those ills which might attend the loss of her reputation, but was wholly blind to those of the ruin of her virtue; and having managed her affairs so as to secure the one, grew perfectly easy with the remembrance she has forfeited the other” (page 2744). Just as she felt that to make the best of her lost honor she needed to stay with Beauplaisir, she felt the need to keep up appearances to maintain her reputation, even though no one truly knows who she is, because she is dictated by her societal gender politics. She also maintains her reputation by paying employees to keep her secret, for example on page 2774, “…was a woman who might be influenced by gifts, made her a present of a couple of broad pieces…” and again later on page 2752, “…and above all the money, which was a sum which, ‘tis probable, they had not seen of a long time, made them immediately assent to all she desired.”

Lastly Fantomina is to blame at the end when her mother finds out about her pregnancy, and not Beauplaisir, which is the ultimate upholding of the gender politics of the time. Even though both Fantomina and Beauplaisir partook in relations before marriage and are having a child out of wedlock it is Fantomina who carries the fault. At the end of the novel she states, “Oh, I am undone! – I cannot live, and bear this shame” (page 2758).  She no longer can keep up her relationship with Beauplaisir because her reputation is ruined by her mother. She tells the truth to both her mother and Beauplaisir and is eventually sent away to a monastery in France. The ending of the novel gives great insight to the non-feminist tone that is shown throughout the story. After Fantomina tells the truth to her mother, she doesn’t believe that Beauplaisir is at fault, “I must confess it was with a design to oblige you to repair the supposed injury you had done this unfortunate girl, by marrying her, but now I know not what to say. – The blame is wholly hers…” (page 2758). Even her mother blames her actions for this end. The story ends with Fantomina being sent away to a monastery and not with her marrying Beauplaisir, it can be seen that this is the ultimate punishment for her and her curiosity.

What started as an innocent curiosity to explore the seeming power of a woman who is a prostitute, turns into a frantic plan to maintain her honor and reputation. Fantomina’s characters and Beauplaisir’s treatment of them were clearly guided by the societal norms of the time and leads to her downfall. Perhaps if she had played a woman of higher class and reputation, it would be quite possible that Beauplaisir would have stayed faithful to her. It is this that makes Fantomina; or Love in a Maze a non-feminist text and Eliza Haywood was merely writing within the gender politics of the early 1700’s.


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